Pitt Panthers Spring Practice Preview: 3 Storylines To Watch

    The Pitt Panthers spring practice preview for 2017. Here are three storylines to follow leading up to the team's spring game on April 15.

    March 14, 2017

    The Pitt Panthers spring practice preview for 2017. Here are three storylines to follow leading up to the team’s spring game on April 15.

    It was certainly an exciting 2016 season for Pitt football.

    Pat Narduzzi led the Panthers to another 8-5 record in his second year on the job, including notching victories over two of the best teams in the country: eventual national champion Clemson, in Death Valley no less, and at home to Penn State, which won the Big Ten title and almost knocked off USC in the Rose Bowl. The former Michigan State defensive coordinator was the perfect hire for the Panthers a few years ago, but he definitely has a team with a lot of questions heading into the 2017 season.

    The Panthers struggled mightily on defense a season ago, specifically against the pass, so if that unit can improve there’s no reason for the Panthers to not be competitive in the ACC Coastal division race. They will, however, face a very difficult four-game stretch to start the season. Youngstown State was the national runner-up in the FCS last year, Penn State won the Big Ten, Oklahoma State has been a consistent winner under Mike Gundy and Georgia Tech will always pose as a threat because of its offense.

    With spring football set to open this week, let’s take a look at the biggest questions facing the Panthers as they get set to prepare for their Blue-Gold spring game on April 15 at Heinz Field as well as the 2017 campaign.

    Pitt Panthers Spring Practice Storylines

    1. Max Browne and Pitt’s QB transfer success

    The Panthers are replacing Nathan Peterman, who succeeded in Matt Canada’s offense last season, with Max Browne, who has transferred in from USC. The Pitt football program is used to taking in grad transfers, as Tom Savage and Peterman came before Browne, whose career in Los Angeles ended just three games into the 2016 season. Browne certainly was inconsistent, though the Trojans faced Alabama and Stanford in two of those three contests. It worked out well for USC, though, as Sam Darnold was handed the starting job and thrived.

    Can the fifth-year senior Browne, who waited his entire Trojans career to start, have success like his predecessors with his new program after announcing this past December that he was leaving for the East Coast? Savage ended up getting drafted, and Peterman will almost certainly have the same fate in this year’s NFL Draft. This just may be the perfect spot for Browne to resurrect a career that seemed to reach a dead end.

    Browne has been with the team for winter conditioning and has worked on routes with his receivers, but he’ll really get a chance to be acclimated with his new team during spring drills. He will face competition for the starting job from Ben DiNucci and Thomas MacVittie, but this is Browne’s job to lose.

    2. Secondary is of primary concern

    It was stunning that the Panthers had one of the worst pass defenses in the entire country in ’16 considering how good Michigan State’s entire defense was under Narduzzi while he was DC in East Lansing. Bottom line: Pitt has no chance to break free from 8-5 unless it finds ways to stop the gashing its defense took through the air.

    There’s no question that injuries affected the pass defense last fall, but there were just too many big plays for opposing offenses, as the Panthers gave up 333.2 yards per game through the air. Only Arizona State was more generous.

    All-ACC safety Jordan Whitehead is back in 2017, but the Panthers really need highly touted recruit Damar Hamlin to be the player that excited recruiting experts when he was a high school prospect. He has some experience now after being forced into action, so that can only help. Avonte Maddox also returns.

    3. Filling the heart and soul void

    Inspirational running back James Conner is gone and pursuing greener pastures at the next level, so he leaves a big void in the team’s backfield. However, Narduzzi does have depth at the position. Qadree Ollison is a former conference rookie of the year and 1,100-yard rusher back in 2015 after Conner went down with his MCL injury, but he only had 27 carries in 2016 as Conner was the top dog and Ollison fell down the depth chart. Darrin Hall had only 35 carries in ’16 but may have the edge on Ollison right now. Then there is Chawntez Moss, who for a short time early last season looked like the heir apparent to Conner. He looked like he could be a lead back, so Moss will likely start spring as the No. 1.

    It will also be interesting to see how new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson uses special pieces such as the electric Quadree Henderson and Whitehead in the running game. Canada was very creative in using non-running backs in the backfield, and Watson would be smart to do the same. It’s quite possible that the Panthers use a committee approach, especially early in the year. Another name to keep an eye on is incoming freshman Todd Sibley, who is a four-star running back who had offers from Ohio State and Michigan. At one time he was actually committed to the Buckeyes.

    MORE: Alabama Football Spring Practice Preview, 3 Storylines To Watch


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